In 1993, WashPost Thought It Was 'Pretty Funny' Anyone Thought DOJ Was Fishy

March 16th, 2007 2:28 PM

While Washington Post reporters Dan Eggen and Paul Kane are getting keyboard blisters probing the White House shenanigans around U.S. attorney dismissals by Team Bush, know this: in 1993, the Post published no stories investigating what Bill Clinton, or Hillary Clinton, or their Little Rock henchman, Webster Hubbell, was doing behind the scenes.

About two weeks after the mass firing, on April 3, 1993 the Post front page reported on how Hubbell surfaced for a Senate confirmation hearing, and reporter David Von Drehle thought it was “pretty funny” that the Wall Street Journal would portray him as an “ominous” figure. “The Judiciary Committee can ask Mr. Mysterious all the questions the Journal and others have been dying to pose.” Notice the Post thought it was “funny” anyone had a question to pose. They’d like people to think they’re equal-opportunity investigators, but they certainly don't look that way on U.S. attorney firings.

Hubbell is a poster boy for Clinton-era corruption. He was charged with stealing a half a million dollars from his law partners in Arkansas, and lavishing the money on furs for his wife and other greedy moves. After he resigned in disgrace in the spring of 1994, proclaiming his innocence, the White House leaned on all the President's buddies to pay him another $700,000 for supposed "jobs" that asked for no substantial work. One of those donors was even a media company: Time Warner paid Hubbell $5,000 for lobbying work, but he never contacted a government official for them.

But the Post insisted Hubbell was so misunderstood by the Wall Street Journal. He was a shy, sweet man and a pillar of integrity. The Post isn't much of a judge of character. Hubbell resigned after it was revealed he embezzled almost half a million dollars from the Rose Law Firm. Von Drehle's shy, sweet Hubbell piece was a beaut. It began:

No one laughed yesterday when Attorney General Janet Reno, introducing President Clinton's choice for associate attorney general, said: "One of the best things to happen to me in these past eight weeks was to find out who Webster Hubbell is."

But in fact, this was pretty funny. Hubbell, see, is the mystery man of the Clinton administration, famous for being invisible. Who Is Webster Hubbell? an ominous headline asked recently on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. When the Journal alleged further dark doings at the Justice Department, the headline read: Who Is Webster Hubbell? -- II.

Now America has a chance to find out. As Clinton's pick for the No. 3 post at Justice, Hubbell will face a Senate confirmation hearing. The Judiciary Committee can ask Mr. Mysterious all the questions the Journal and others have been dying to pose.

Is Hubbell a tool of his former law partner, Hillary Rodham Clinton? Did he "broker" a meeting where political pressure caused Justice to embarrass itself in the trial of Rep. Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.)? Did he engineer a mass firing of U.S. attorneys as a way of derailing the investigation of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.)?

Does he secretly pull the strings of Justice?

The man in question turns out to be a strange fit in the role of shadowy operative. Hubbell is an immense person, as befits the star offensive tackle of the University of Arkansas team that won the 1969 Sugar Bowl. He lumbers rather than slinks.

Like a lot of physically imposing men, he endeavors to appear unthreatening, speaking in a gentle near-whisper and smiling softly like a shy child. He earned stacks of money as managing partner of the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Ark., but wears ordinary suits with stray threads dangling from the sleeves.

"He's a gentle giant type of guy," said Arkansas Times columnist John Brummett, a frequent critic of Bill Clinton but a big fan of Webb Hubbell. "I can't imagine him as some strong-arm guy imposing some sort of strong-arm position on the Justice Department."

His critics have construed him as a man of silent chicanery, but around Little Rock he is known as the mayor who crusaded for open government, the civic leader who drafted the state's first lobbyist-disclosure law, the lawyer who chaired the state bar association's ethics committee.

The problem may be that he hates talking about himself. On the eve of his long-delayed nomination, Hubbell sat for only the second interview he has given since coming to the capital. The first was with a colleague's 9-year-old daughter for a piece in the school newspaper.

"In retrospect, maybe it would have been better if I had talked to the press," he said.

If he had, Hubbell would have told a tragi-comic tale of Washington in a time of big changes. It began when his golfing buddy, Bill Clinton, asked on Christmas Eve if he would join the government. No job was mentioned. Then, in early January, he and four others accepted brief assignments helping attorney general-nominee Zoe E. Baird locate and flip all the rusty levers involved in changing an enormous Republican agency into an enormous Democratic agency.

Boom. Baird's nomination blew up, and the next presidential choice, Kimba M. Wood, withdrew. The five Democrats hunkered down. "It was purgatory," one recalled. The law enforcement arm of the world's last remaining superpower had origami for an organization chart.

The trouble with telling the press what he was doing, Hubbell suggested, was that he was not quite sure himself. His role was "multi-faceted," he said, because of the long, stumbling interregnum.

Stuart M. Gerson, a Bush holdover, was acting attorney general, and "there were a lot of things where he would want to know what the new administration was thinking," Hubbell said. "And there were issues he knew would last after he was gone, where he wanted to work with us to ensure a smooth transition."

Nor did Hubbell feel he could discuss the future. Until the other key figures in the new Justice Department were named, "I couldn't say quite where I would fit, or what my role would be."

But if Hubbell couldn't say what he was up to, others were happy to try. Thus Hubbell finds himself denying that, at the behest of the White House, he "brokered" a meeting between Gerson and the Congressional Black Caucus, which was upset that Ford, one of its members, was to be tried on bribery charges by a jury with 11 whites on it. The caucus "asked to meet with me . . . and Stuart asked to come," Hubbell said.

Everyone involved -- the White House, Hubbell, Gerson -- says that the subsequent decision to ask the judge to dismiss the jury, a bombshell that Justice quickly abandoned, was made by Gerson, the Republican holdover.

And Hubbell denies that pressing the U.S. attorneys for their resignations had anything to do with the investigation of Rostenkowski by U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens -- as Stephens, a Republican, has implied.

"Stephens said publicly it is not going to affect any ongoing investigations and it's not," Hubbell said. "Janet Reno asked the U.S. attorneys to inform her of any reasons why they should stay longer. A number of them have. But he chose to communicate with us exclusively through the press."

Harder to deny is that Hubbell will be the eyes and ears of the White House. With Harvard's Philip B. Heymann nominated to be deputy attorney general, and Yale's Drew Days tapped as solicitor general, Hubbell is the only Clinton insider among the department's top brass.

Intriguingly, up to now, Hubbell's specialty as a public official was smoothing things out. When his colleagues on the Little Rock city board elected him mayor in 1979, he was a calming replacement for a man who resigned abruptly after giving the press a one-fingered wave.

And in 1984, then-Gov. Clinton appointed him to fill out a term as chief of the state Supreme Court. The judges were feuding, and Hubbell's brief was to patch things up.

But lately, he has been the burr and not the balm.

Hubbell seems to understand this may be what he gets remembered for, that he may be The Mystery Man forever, whether the role fits or not. "This is the plight of the offensive lineman," he said, harkening back to his days wearing the Razorback red.

There once was a tribute for the great Razorback coach Frank Broyles, he continued. Three former players spoke. A great Arkansas quarterback was introduced by his passing statistics. A legendary running back was introduced by his rushing yardage.

"And they remembered me for the one time my man beat me and sacked the quarterback in the Sugar Bowl," Hubbell said. "Quarterbacks and running backs are remembered for their achievements. Offensive linemen are remembered for their mistakes."